President Dmitry Medvedev’s state visit to Paris was dominated by talks on Iran and Russian aspirations to purchase up to four French Mistral-class advanced amphibious helicopter-carrier warships. French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, was upbeat on both issues after his talks with Medvedev, directly connecting Iran and the Mistral: “It is impossible to say in the morning, ‘Monsieur Medvedev, I trust you, vote for us in the UN Security Council,’ and later in the day, ‘we do not trust you and will not sell you the Mistral’” (www.kremlin.ru, March 2).
Both Medvedev and Sarkozy spoke much about mutual trust. Medvedev announced that Russia may agree to “discus some new UN sanctions” to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, while emphasizing that sanctions (which it is better to avoid) must not be aimed at the Iranian population (www.kremlin.ru, March 2). It is clear that Moscow is not prepared to approve punitive sanctions like an embargo on oil imports into Iran. However, it would seem to be a partial concession, since recently high-ranking Russian officials were rejecting sanctions and stressing that Moscow will soon go ahead and ship advanced S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Iran so that, according to the speaker of the Federation Council (upper house of parliament) Sergei Mironov, “Iran could defend itself against any attack” (RIA Novosti, February 20).
Sarkozy publicly justified the sale of the Mistral as a tradeoff for concessions on Iran. In fact, French officials are so eager to sell the Mistral that prior to Medvedev’s visit they were mostly afraid that Russia would abandon the purchase. Sarkozy was excited to announce, “France and Russia today began exclusive talks about the sale of four Mistral ships,” adding, “It would be correct to build two in France and two in Russia.” Previously, Moscow was offering to buy one French-built Mistral and build the others in Russia under license (Vedomosti, March 3). Medvedev stressed that the Mistral “is a symbol of trust between our nations, while it will also allow us to receive items we do not have and would want to build in cooperation with others” (www.kremlin.ru, March 2).
French officials are worried about Russia’s commitment to the sale, because they do not understand why Moscow wants expensive ships designed exclusively to carry out interventionist military action far from its territory. In Russia, the proposed Mistral deal is unpopular. The French have stated that the Mistrals will be sold without helicopters or advanced electronics. The Russian press quoted defense industry officials as saying: “Why do we need this tub? We can build one ourselves” (Vedomosti, March 3). Other defense industry sources stressed that it might take up to ten years to domestically produce a Mistral-class ship from scratch, and this option would prove more costly than buying from France (RIA Novosti, March 1).
The time factor may also be decisive. If work on the first Mistral for Russia begins this year, it will be fully operational in the navy in four to five years. This would coincide with the approaching 2017 deadline for the Black Sea Fleet to leave Sevastopol in the Crimea. The newly elected Ukrainian President, Victor Yanukovych, has said that he is ready to negotiate an extension of the lease of Sevastopol if Moscow is willing to pay more. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether Yanukovych will be in power in 2015-2017, or if his party may have enough votes to change the Ukrainian constitution to extend the lease, while the Russian military clearly has no intention of leaving Sevastopol (EDM, July 16, 2009).
The Baltic States and Georgia have expressed fears that the French-built Mistral may be used against them in the future (EDM, February 26). However, in any such eventuality a Mistral-class warship is not essential: Russian tanks have in the past successfully moved deep into Georgia and into the Baltic States without any need for a massive amphibious assault. The Crimea is different: if in 2015-2017 Russia’s claim to have special rights and interests in the Crimea leads to a military confrontation with Ukraine, the Black Sea Fleet could be militarily defenseless or at a serious disadvantage in its Sevastopol base during a possible conflict with Ukrainian ground forces. In such a contingency, a Mistral-class ship would give Russia a decisive advantage in performing an amphibious operation close to Sevastopol, relatively far from its bases in Novorossiysk and the Taman peninsula. By 2015 Russia plans to have a reformed regular standing armed force 100-percent ready for war.
There seems to have been another political tradeoff in Paris this week, indirectly connected with the Mistral warship. Sarkozy, for the first time, publicly accepted the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008: “In the Georgian crisis I think he [Medvedev] defended Russian interests, when he did what he did” (www.kremlin.ru, March 2). It will take years before Russia procures the Mistral, but the political tradeoff is effective immediately.
In several weeks, winter will be over in the South Caucasus and Russian troops can once again prepare for action against Georgia – this time with an understanding of tacit French approval. A land border crossing between Georgia and Russia at Kazbegi that was closed in 2006 has re-opened this week. Yet, the Georgian Foreign Minister, Grigol Vashadze, has announced: “No weapons or ordinance for Russian troops in Armenia will be allowed access” (www.apsny.ge, March 3). The troops in Armenia are still supported only by air – a situation that cannot and will not be tolerated indefinitely. This week, the Black Sea Fleet left bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk to land marines in Abkhazia (RIA Novosti, March 3).<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>